US track and field star Sha’Carri Richardson has been suspended for one month from the Olympic team after testing positive for THC, a chemical found in marijuana, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced on Friday
“The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels; hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her,” said USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart in a press release.
Richardson had booked her spot at the Tokyo Olympics with a runaway victory in the women’s 100m at the US Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon last month. Due to the positive test, her Olympic trials results were automatically disqualified and she will not be allowed to participate in her signature 100m race at the Tokyo Olympics later this month.
“Richardson’s competitive results obtained on June 19, 2021, including her Olympic qualifying results at the Team Trials, have been disqualified, and she forfeits any medals, points, and prizes. Beyond the one-month sanction, athlete eligibility for the Tokyo Games is determined by the USOPC and/or USA Track & Field eligibility rules.”
“Sha’Carri Richardson’s situation is incredibly unfortunate and devastating for everyone involved,” USA Track and Field said in a statement. “Athlete health and well-being continue to be one of USATF’s most critical priorities and we will work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”
It’s unclear whether Richardson will miss the Games altogether. She may still be eligible to compete in another event besides the 100m, such as the 4x100m relay.
Richardson appeared on NBC’s TODAY show on Friday morning and said: “I just want to take responsibility for my actions, I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do, I’m allowed not to do and I still made that decision. I’m not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case.”
Richardson cited finding out from a reporter that her biological mother had passed away as part of the reason she consumed marijuana, saying: “I was just thinking it would be a normal interview and then on the interview to hear that information come from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering, it was nerve shocking because it’s like who are you to tell me that?
“From there just blinded by emotions, blinded by bad news, blinded by just hiding hurt, honestly for the fact that I can’t hide myself, so at least in some type of way, I was trying to hide my pain.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the USADA label cannabis as a banned substance as it “poses a health risk to athletes, has the potential to enhance performance and violates the spirit of sport.”
“Everything I do comes from me naturally. No steroid(s). No anything. This incident was about marijuana. After my sanctions are up, I’ll be back and able to compete and every single time I step on the track I’ll be ready to compete for whatever anti-doping agency to come and get what it is that they need,” Richardson concluded.
Meanwhile the presence of marijuana on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list has long been controversial. Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was originally stripped of his 1998 Olympic gold medal after testing positive for THC but that decision was overturned since it wasn’t on the banned substance list at the time. USADA singles out three reasons why cannabinoids are banned: athletes could endanger themselves and others because of slower reaction times and poor executive function and decision making, marijuana can be “performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines,” and the use of “illicit drugs that are harmful to health” is “not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”.
As for the moral high-horse bit: can anyone reasonably argue, in this day and age, that an athlete using marijuana deserves a boot from the Olympics because such behavior is “not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world?” In a world where momentum for legalization is growing (it’s legal in Oregon, where Richardson competed at Trials)? In a situation where someone may have turned to a legal substance to cope with grief? Come on.
None of these reasons seem to apply in Richardson’s case. She endangered no one at the track: quite the opposite, she distanced herself from the competition. The performance-enhancing benefits of marijuana are, if not specious, at least very much up for debate. A 2018 literature review published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, for example, said that “although cannabis use is more prevalent in some athletes engaged in high-risk sports, there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes.” Even USADA’s statement on Richardson’s suspension acknowledges “her use of cannabis occurred out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance.”